|Fate played a devilish hand|
He was lost, well, not exactly. He knew from where he had come and where he was going. But at this precise moment he was adrift, like a bird swept by the winds of a storm. The road was narrow and unkempt, typical of this part of Eastern Europe. In the west the sun was beginning to set; its rays profiled a range of cliffs over in the east. He concluded he must be in a valley. He drove on south until he saw a signpost indicating a village that lay a few kilometers ahead. Good, he thought, maybe I can find a place for the night.
Five minutes later, driving cautiously on the uneven road he noticed, on his left, a scarecrow planted in the middle of a large field. Its appearance was strangely elegant. From his childhood’s picture books he remembered how scarecrows were shabby, their bodies made of straw that protruded from the legs and arms. This scarecrow looked surprisingly neat and tidily dressed in a frock coat, striped trousers, a colorful waistcoat, heavy boots and large gloves that gently flapped in the evening breeze. On the top of his head, placed at a jaunty angle, was a top hat. The form of its face, from what he could see in the dim light, seemed to be some kind of mask. Silhouetted against the setting sun it looked a bit thin, accentuated by its loosely hanging clothes. The arms were spread wide apart, its legs extended giving it the appearance of agitated movement. Decidedly a distinguished character; in passing he waved, half expecting an acknowledgement.
Much to his surprise a few minutes later he noticed in another field two more scarecrows. One was a man, the other a woman. This time the man had a cap on his head, while the woman wore a straw bonnet appropriately fitting her long flowing robe protected by an apron. He stopped the car, got out, and looked over the nearest gate. Every field in his line of sight seemed to be graced with a scarecrow. In some fields he noticed there were two. In the gathering dusk these rigid figures cast eerie shadows across the meadows. He was tempted to walk across a field and take a closer look, but by now it was getting too dark. He returned to his car and pressed on to the village in hopes of finding a lodging.
The village was nestled at the bottom of a steep incline. The dying rays of the sun were just strong enough to make out a church’s steeple and trace the outline of a river running through the hamlet below. As he approached he noticed all the houses were enveloped in darkness, giving them a sinister atmosphere. He felt like a lonely owl on a late night prowl. At the village square he was relieved to see a faint light coming from the local café.
He pushed open the door of the café armed with his suitcase. There was not a soul to be seen; from somewhere in the back he was greeted by a deep, rough voice saying.
“We are closed.”
“Excuse me, but I have lost my way. I was wondering if you have a bed just for one night, I intend leaving in the morning?”
No reply. He heard a door being opened at the back of the bar; a massive man entered, his chest resembled a wine barrel, his arms were huge, like the branches of some great oak. In keeping with the physical frame his large head was covered in a mass of flowing black long hair. He had an overgrown beard from which protruded fleshy sensual lips. His eyes were somber and cold like darkened flint stones.
“We don’t get many strangers stopping here.” This was said as if the big man was intent on pushing him on his way.
“I am just passing through. If you haven’t got a room maybe you can tell me exactly where I am.”
The innkeeper looked him up and down obviously trying to decide whether to accept this stranger. The decision seemed difficult. He stepped forward to get a closer look.
“The last time we had a visitor was five years ago. He slept in the back room; I suppose you could sleep there. You said you would be leaving in the morning.” This last remark was uttered in such as a way that it could be only interpreted as an order.
“Yes, I will be leaving in the morning.”
This confirmation seemed to satisfy the giant’s quandary. His next question took the stranger by surprise.
“Have you eaten?”
“I will get the missus to lay your supper. Go and take your case to the room.”
He indicated a set of stairs at the far corner of the room.
“The room is at the end of the corridor, the light’s at the top of the stairs.”
The lighting in the corridor was so poor he had some difficulty in finding the room. On entering he could believe that nobody had slept there for years. The room had a large bed, no carpet, and a pair of grubby curtains that covered a large window facing the room’s only entrance. In the corner there was a small washbasin. He placed his case on the bed, took one more look, wondered if he would sleep well and returned to the café below.
As he reached the lower part of the stairs he got a good view of the main room. He was surprised at its size. There was a large bar at the back that stretched the whole width of the room. In the front numerous chairs and tables were scattered at random-no doubt the café served as the villagers’ meeting place. Over on the right side he saw a place laid for supper. He sat down and waited.
A few minutes later a small frail woman entered carrying a tray laden with his meal. She set it down before him without saying a word. He was about to say something when the innkeeper entered and asked him if he wanted a beer.
“That would be just fine.”
He wanted to thank the woman, but she had already disappeared through the door behind the bar. The big man returned with a beer and instead of leaving just stood there watching him. His presence was disturbing. He felt as if a giant crow was waiting to swoop down on any tidbits that might fall from his plate. To alleviate his curiosity about the village he started asking questions.
“I noticed the village has a church, is there a resident priest?”
“No, we have not had a priest for the last twenty- five years, but prior to that we had a blind priest who was with us for over fifty years.”
The reply seemed peculiar, as he knew from his studies this region had a strong culture of supporting the church. He probed a bit further.
“I came from the North and noticed the village was surrounded by agricultural lands. No doubt the principle activity is farming?
“Yes, it’s all farming around here.”
“Oh! That explains why I did not see anybody about; no doubt the villagers retire early and get up with the sunrise.
This last remark extinguished any thought of further conversation. It was obvious the big man wanted him to go to his room. He was about to leave the table when one more thought crossed his mind.
“Tell me, why are there so many scarecrows in the fields?”
“It’s an old village custom, don’t worry your head about that.” Came an abrupt reply.
He was just about to phrase another question when he was interrupted.
“Stranger you ask too many questions. Good night.”
It must have been the innkeeper’s abrupt remark about the scarecrows that encircled his sleep in a strange dream. He found himself in the fields surrounding the village. The moon was playing hide and seek with dark ominous clouds as they started grouping in the west. All was silent; the only sound was the field mice scurrying through the corn busy on their nightly errands. Suddenly he heard a cracking sound as if stiff joints were being exercised. The scarecrows were moving. He vividly saw tall, elongated shadows stiffly walking across the fields, climbing hedges, and pushing open gates. He heard the squelch of boots, little rips of cloth as the hedgerows caught their garments. In the shadowy light of a half moon he could distinguish gloved hands extended to help the needy. All the movement of these long rigid figures, with their inflexible limbs, was taking place without a word being spoken. He heard himself shouting at them, only to see their blank faces showing no sign of recognition. It was a weird and touching sight. In some strange way his body started moving with the crowd. He ran into the field wanting to reach out and touch them, they just walked right through him. It started to rain, the scarecrows seemed indifferent to the weather they continued making their way to the east of the village. He tried to follow, but by this time the rain was coming down in torrents. He ran towards a large tree to take shelter. He woke to the sound of water cascading down the gutter pipes. He rolled over to look at his watch; it was three in the morning. His muscles felt stiff; he turned over trying to capture the scene of the marching scarecrows. They were no longer there. His dream had been washed away with the storm. It was an eternity before he finally fell asleep.
The next morning as he walked down the stairs to the café’s large room he was disconcerted to hear a loud voice saying.
“Could it have been the stranger you have staying with you?”
The room was crowded with villagers in a state of great agitation. Once they saw him silence reigned. Angry eyes turned their gaze in his direction. He stood there not sure what was happening. From the atmosphere in the room it was obvious some strange and curious event had happened last night.
The innkeeper broke the silence.
“Stranger, somebody has moved all the scarecrows to the big field on the eastern slope of the village.”
Before he could reply a shout came from the back of the room.
“Did you touch our scarecrows? Who are you?”
“No, I am a priest on my way to Rome.”
At this remark the crowd’s eyes turned from anger into skepticism. A woman step forward.
“Why should we believe you are priest, what proof have you?”
“Give me a few minutes.”
He returned to his room, donned his cassock, carefully adjusted a handsome necklace from which a cross hung as he slipped over his neck and returned to the café. The reaction was instant, he saw a few people cross themselves; nobody spoke. The air in the room was stifling and hung heavy with expectancy as if the earlier anger and disbelief had been part of his disturbing nightmare.
In a clear forceful tone he addressed the crowd.
“My name is Father Carl. In a few days I will have an audience with the Pope in Rome. Last night I lost my way. The innkeeper very kindly gave me a bed for the night.”
He was just going to tell them about his strange dream when he realized it might complicate a situation that was already creating a considerable amount of disruption. He thought it better to assure them he was just passing through.
“I intend leaving immediately once I have had a coffee.”
The atmosphere and tone of the café were like a funeral parlor, most of the villages present had bowed their heads; they were confused and unsure of themselves.
To his right there was a movement; an old man stepped forward. He had thinning white hair, a weather-beaten face that supported a short white goat’s beard. His overall impression was one of authority. He looked directly into the priest’s eyes before speaking in a slow deliberate tone.
“Father, you can see we are all greatly disturbed. Something wicked happened in our village last night. Will you come to the field and help us solve our mystery?”
Father Carl looked down into his weather-beaten face. It was the face of an honest, simple man, who, no doubt, had considerable influence in the village.
He paused before replying, the dream was still vividly implanted in his memory, he was not sure he wanted to get involved. At the same time he was curious to know what had happened to the scarecrows.
Hesitatingly he said, “Yes, I will come.”
There was a strange sigh of relief from the crowded café.
Equipped with a heavy pair of boots as the storm had left the village and surrounding fields in a serious muddy condition, Father Carl and the old man set out for the field, followed, at a short distance, by a trail of villagers. As the procession reached the place he caught his breath in stupefaction. The field was littered with scarecrows scattered in all directions. Their long thin bodies clothed in wet garments representing various statements of fashion dating back a few generations were positioned as though they had been struck by lightening. Stiff and gaunt, their arms extended, their feet stuck in the mud created by the storm. A few lay on the ground as if they had given up the struggle. He noticed some of their clothes were ripped, and several hats had fallen to the ground. It was a strange and curious sight made more macabre by the light of the early morning sun. The priest felt a cold shiver strike his body. He paused before entering the field. He felt like shouting, the images of his dream were overpowering. There before him lay a spectacle of desolation, brought on by the storm.
He walked over to the nearest standing scarecrow. The face immediately caught his attention. It was a reproduction of a human face, beautifully carved in wood. Without thinking he took off one of the scarecrow’s gloves. He stood back in horror; it was the skeleton of a human hand. The sight of long white bony figures was so unexpected. He caught his breath. What did this signify? Something was very wrong.
He turned and looked at the villagers gathered behind him. Their faces expressed the deep fear of being accused of some hideous crime. Not a sound could be heard.
He reverted his attention to the scarecrow and removed the facemask. He felt a surge of emotional repulsion, as he once remembered feeling when administering the last rights to a man that was about to be executed. Glaring at him were two large skeleton eye sockets. He tore off the scarecrow’s coat; beneath it he found the bony frame of a human body. In anger he turned to the crowd.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
He felt the old man touch his arm. He looked down and noticed the old man’s hands were trembling with emotion. Stuttering the old man said.
“Father, don’t be angry, all our scarecrows are deceased members of our families. It is an old custom of our village handed down by our forefathers, they are our ancestors.”
The priest stood there looking first at the villagers and then at the field. In a quiet and somber voice he said.
“Whatever the reason, this is wrong. Somebody moved the scarecrows, or they moved by themselves, I don’t know. But in the name of Our Father it is your duty to give them a decent burial.”
The villagers reacted as if some unknown and inexplicable wind had blown across the field. He heard whispering, as if the wind was pushing leaves across a courtyard. The old man again touched his arm.
“Father, we need to talk amongst ourselves. Could we meet you back in the café in one hour’s time?”
An hour later Father Carl was standing on the lower stairs in the cafe as he had done earlier that morning. Judging from the solemn faces before him their dilemma was serious. The old man acted as their spokesman.
“Father, as you saw for yourself, somebody, or some unknown force has disturbed the scarecrows from our fields. We all agree they should now be buried. Will you conduct the service?”
Father Carl was taken aback by this request. He never imagined this would be the result of his visit to the field. He immediately gave his reply.
“I am sorry, but no. I am expected in Rome. It will take you days to dig individual graves for all these people.”
“Father, we have thought about that. Today is Monday. We will be ready for the service on Thursday morning at 10 o’clock. You must agree we cannot bury our ancestors without a priest.”
The priest looked at the sea of faces turned in his direction. Their faces and eyes told the whole story. These were ignorant people struggling to understand what had happened. His harsh conversation with them in the field about burying them had obviously weighted heavily on their decision. He raised his eyes towards the heavens for guidance.
“ Thursday 10 o’clock. I will leave immediately after the service.”
For the second time that morning Father Carl heard the strange sigh from the crowded café.
While the villagers dug the graves in the churchyard Father Carl had time to talk to the old people of the hamlet. Slowly, as their confidence in him grew, he heard the story of the scarecrows. Apparently, so the story goes, many years ago the fields were infested with birds that came on the spring winds and left with the autumn’s gales. They destroyed much of the crops, leaving the villagers hungry. One winter a villager was lost in a violent snowstorm. The snows lay deep all winter. It was only in the early spring they found his skeleton. That year when the birds came they never touched the field where the skeleton had laid all winter. The following spring the villagers decided to dig up a few relatives from the Church’s graveyard and dress them as scarecrows. When the birds came they never touched the fields guarded by the human scarecrows. So as the years passed each family designated a deceased relative to protect their fields. Finally, as the fields filled with human scarecrows the birds disappeared. Father Carl listened intently to this touching and enigmatic story. He now understood why the village church had no priest, and maybe why the last priest had been blind. He never asked what was the cause of the priest’s blindness.
On Thursday at the appointed hour Father Carl presided over a mass burial of one hundred and twenty tired souls. They went to their graves beautifully dressed with their facemasks on. As the caskets were lowered in the graves the family’s name was read out. It was a simple, moving service, conducted with great dignity. As the service ended the old man, on behalf of the villagers, asked the priest.
“Will you stay and take over the duties of our church?”
Before the Father could reply he heard the innkeeper say. “We insist”
“Thank you for you confidence, but no. I must leave.”
As the evening sun started to set over the village the shadow of a strange scarecrow dressed in a priest’s cassock cast a ghostly image in the big field to the east of the church.
That night the villagers slept in peace, knowing the birds would never return.